“True or false, my birthday is on 17 April,” my co-op partner asks me, holding back a sinister laugh. He knows it’s been a few years and a series of lockdowns since we’ve had a proper chat, and I’m a little clay man trapped in a brass pneumatic chamber. Shame washes over me, and I squirm and make silly noises before letting out a meek “True?”
Without words, he slaps a button to incinerate me, and we both burst into laughter. We’re playing It Takes Two, the latest offering from Josef Fares’ Hazelight Studios. Hazelight is one of the very few development teams dedicated to reanimating the joys of couch co-op. You may be familiar with its previous work: the heart-rending stick-twiddler Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and the half-baked-but-charming A Way Out.
Fares’ laser focus on a forgotten genre ensures that the studio’s games exist in their own unique, charming lane, reminding us of the days before online multiplayer really took hold. Ultimately, they’re built to strengthen the relationships of the duos that play them, and It Takes Two feels like the product of a studio that has fully figured out its niche.
The premise revolves around a little girl called Rose who is caught in the middle of a looming divorce. Rose makes dolls of her parents Cody and May to pretend that they’re going to stay together forever, but when her tears grace the patchwork guardians they are brought to life in fun-sized form. Players control Cody and May as they’re forced to reconcile their differences in a different dimension, solving puzzles with communication. It’s gamified couples therapy, an interactive romantic comedy with a much longer runtime, clocking in at about twelve hours tops.
Across those hours you’ll visit fantasised worlds based on parts of the family home. The innards of an old oak tree becomes the setting for an armed conflict between squirrels and wasps that you must mediate, and a sentimental snow globe becomes a ski resort. The intimate scale of the game leads to countless striking details in the environment, from plastic beach-ball stretch marks to the bulging braided cords of microphone snakes you have to dodge in the attic. It’s the kind of texture work that really demands screenshots. I couldn’t help but zoom in on stray capacitors or perforations in plastic that ripple carefully in the air, allowing players to float on their plumes.
Beyond the tools mapped to the triggers, the control scheme is simple: you can double jump, dash, butt slam, and smack, but the satisfying momentum of these inputs has been fine-tuned to allow for mistakes that feel like the player’s fault, with little room for frustration at the game itself. To me, this is the mark of any good platformer, where failure goads you to get better. Consistent boss battles will push you to your limits, such as a toolbox demon that is raining nails and constantly slicing through a precarious platform. You’re forced to put your heads together, combining hammer and nail to catapult into the air and pop an explosive can of WD-40 in its anthropomorphic brain.
Hazelight is always manipulating what you can do based on the introduced mechanics, so you’re never far away from being flabbergasted. It can be frantic in the moment – one scene you’re in a classroom trying to pass an exam on a time limit, solving mental maths with butt slams and carefully connecting a dot-to-dot drawing. Other puzzles are slow and careful head-scratchers where you’re unravelling a code based on a solution only one shrunken player can see. You can also find optional competitive minigames that are peppered through each map – well worth dodging the story for to see who’s the best at chess or Scalextric.
The mechanical variety is staggering, and It Takes Two is well worth its price for this aspect alone. But where it fell apart for me was in the pacing and narrative department. For about five hours it’s in a stride, heading from one set piece to the next, with each level meaningful narratively, with smart side characters and a clear moral around repairing the failing relationship. Soon after though, it quietens down and forgets what it wants to say. Levels lose their meaning beyond being dragged-out puzzle parlours.
Here’s an example – about halfway through the game, the parents violently chase down their daughter’s favourite toy to further their ambitions to get back to normality, and It Takes Two starts teasing out this great moral about how warring parents can lose sight of their children’s needs in the cold pragmatism of divorce. It was on the cusp of some very powerful emotions, I could feel the tears coming, but the story wasn’t smart enough to bring this idea home, cutting in with daft quips instead.
This tracks for the remainder of the game, as at its climax, It Takes Two stage-dives into an abrupt happy ending and smacks headfirst into the concrete. Maybe I’m jaded from personal experience, but the last few levels weren’t believable, and in spite of consistently funny voice acting, the closing dialogue felt particularly sickly. The way it resolved almost ruined the game for me and my co-op partner – the impression it left was that its main characters didn’t learn anything despite all of the meaningful lessons it had taught us as players.
While the game’s score isn’t much to write home about, the sound design in It Takes Two is full of superb intricacies. Pounding plugs into place, slapping buttons, and cracking glass bottles are tactile experiences that serve to ground players in its magnificent miniature world.
It Takes Two is a singular co-op experience valuable to any duo with an unfortunately shoddy story.
Format: PC (tested) / PS5 / XB S/X / PS4 / XBO
Developer: Hazelight Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: Out now